What About Angels?

An iPub Perspective Editorial

By Joseph Stoutzenberger

Though my upcoming book with iPub does not mention angels, I remedy that here. Angels are referenced throughout the Bible and Catechisms. Recalling my encounter with a guardian angel may help you remember your own.

In a book that sets out to provide an introductory overview of Catholicism (working title: A Catholic Worldview Today, expected publication in May), certain topics are invariably left out. For instance, in my recent book, I don’t discuss the topic of angels. I do discuss the devil, mostly to point out the central teaching of Catholicism that Jesus, the Good, triumphs over the powers of evil—Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Angels perhaps figure more prominently in the popular imaginations of Catholics and non-Catholics alike than in official teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes eight paragraphs specifically to them, #328-334, although there are some references to angelic appearances elsewhere. The Glossary of the Catechism defines an angel as: “A spiritual, personal, and immortal creature, with intelligence and free will, who glorifies God without ceasing and who serves God as a messenger of his saving plan.”

A statue of an angel holding a wreath of roses to her chest
Image by Marisa04 from Pixabay

In his book of Christmas poems, Seeing Haloes, John Shea adds another common characteristic of angels: they “show up in more ways than you can imagine and when you least expect.” An angel in the book says, “I am the winged reminder to open your myopia into mystery.” His description reflects the three common threads about angels in the Bible: they appear in human form, they do good, and they disappear.

Angels are messengers from God who serve as protectors and heralds of good news. In the Old Testament, they tend to appear as human beings, often unexpectedly. Abraham welcomed three strangers who gave him the good news that his 90-year-old wife, Sarah, was to bear a son. Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, encountered another stranger. Then and perhaps even now, you never know when a stranger is an angel in disguise, so Jacob asked the stranger for his blessing. The stranger refused, but Jacob would not take no for an answer. He wrestled with the stranger through the entire night to get his blessing. The experience is so transforming that henceforth Jacob has another name—Israel, which means “one who wrestles with God,” in this case, a messenger from God, an angel.

Gustave Doré, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1855)
Gustave DoréJacob Wrestling with the Angel (1855). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In the New Testament, Mary is visited by an angel and told she is to become the mother of the Son of God. Twice angels appear to Joseph in a dream, first to tell him to marry Mary, despite her being pregnant, and, after the child’s birth, to go to Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod, who intended to kill the newborn king. The birth of Christ is heralded by an entire choir of angels, who alert shepherds of the wonderful event that signals glad tidings for all.

Popular culture has made good use of angels. What would the film It’s a Wonderful Life be without the angel Clarence? Beat poets of the 1950s referred to angels, as do contemporary songwriters. Bob Dylan’s 1979 song “Precious Angel” pleaded: “Shine your light, shine your light on me/Ya know I just couldn’t make it by myself/I’m a little too blind to see.” Bruce Springsteen and folk singer John Prine mentioned angels in their songs. There have been multiple angel-themed television shows. The list of popular references could go on forever.

I am old enough to remember when Catholic children were told that they had their own personal guardian angel. That was always reassuring for a Catholic child to hear. True to my Catholic background, as an adult, I had an encounter that I can only describe as the intervention of an angel. Perhaps you have also been aided by an angel sometime in your life…

I was driving an old car from Philadelphia to Washington, DC, when, on a desolate stretch along I-95, I heard a loud “ping” from my motor, and the car lost power. Fortunately, I was near an exit and made my way, going at most ten miles an hour, to a mini-mart just off the highway. I was totally baffled about what to do, so I called my wife from a phone inside the store (this was before everyone had cell phones) and described what happened. A man was standing next to me fixing his coffee, and when I got off the phone, he said, “Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but hear what you said. I used to be a truck driver, and I know what it’s like to break down on the road. I know an auto repair shop a mile from here that is reputable. If your car runs, you can follow me to it, and then I’d be happy to drive you wherever you’d like to go.”

A side view of an old 4x4 vehicle, the driver's side door and hood open, with a person leaning inside the hood.
Image by Adri Marie from Pixabay

I dropped off the car at the repair shop, and the man again offered to drive me home. I thanked him for his offer but explained that I lived in Philadelphia, which was too far.

He replied, “I’m free for the afternoon and would be glad to do it.”

I said, “Thanks for the offer, but is there a town nearby that has a train or bus that can take me to Philly? I would appreciate a ride there.” He took me to the train station in New Castle, Delaware. I thanked him, and he drove off. I never thought to ask his name. I was so flustered and distracted by my situation that I couldn’t even picture what he looked like after he left.

On the train ride home, it struck me: an angel had just visited me! This is how angels operate. Abraham knew it. Jacob knew it. Mary and Joseph knew it. And now, I had a first-hand experience of it myself.

Credits for the featured image are as follows: Image by NoName_13 from Pixabay

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